This week the Washington Post unveiled a database it has been compiling regarding the fatal police shootings in this country. This is essential data that, shockingly, nobody had been officially tracking before. Over the past three years as we have tried to come to terms with the many high-profile police killings across the country, any serious analyses and conclusions were limited by the fact that no organization had been keeping track of this number in any systematic way. Bravo to the Washington Post for doing what newspapers, at their best, should be doing. One small critique up front–it seems to me that the database should keep track of all police killings, not just police killings by firearm. Two of the most controversial police killings over the past year have been the chokehold death in Staten Island, and the death in the police van in Baltimore–neither of which would show up in these numbers.
What do the numbers say? The raw number is 463 killings in the first six months of 2014. I am not surprised by the absolute number of killings. Obviously any killing by a police officer is one too many, but nationally the police engage in over twelve million arrests per year–and certainly if we add in the number of non-arrest police-citizen encounters, that number grows even higher. Given those numbers, and the high prevalence of gun ownership in this country (see below) some amount of violent encounters between police and civilians is unavoidable. (The numbers also go both ways–last year 126 police officers were killed in the line of duty). And of the 463 fatalities so far this year, the suspect was armed in 387 of them, which is at least some evidence that many of those killings were justifiable.
Having said that, it does not take too much digging into the numbers to get to some truly startling and troubling numbers. The most troubling is the racialized aspect of the statistics. Although whites made up almost exactly 50% of those who were killed, they made up only 27% of the unarmed civilians being killed–blacks and Latinos made up 75% of that number. This confirms a lot of what many studies have told us about how implicit bias can change a police officer’s instinctive reaction to a situation depending on the race of the subject. It also implies that a lot of the killings of unarmed civilians could be avoided–there is no legitimate reason why the numbers for non-whites should be disproportionate to the numbers for whites.
One other point which I can’t resist making. I am currently in Oxford teaching Comparative Criminal Procedure, and I opened my class today talking about these numbers and the new Washington Post database (it is unrelated to the topics we are discussing in class, but it is a criminal procedure issue and a very important one). After I went through the numbers, one of the students naturally asked–since we were in a comparative criminal procedure class–how the United States numbers compared to the British numbers. I looked it up–Britain (with 20% of our population) has had 55 police shootings in the past 24 years–i.e., less than two per year. Of course one of the big differences (at least to me) is the difference in gun laws between the two countries. Almost none of the police here in Britain carry guns–because almost none of the civilians are allowed to carry guns. When a police officer in the United States approaches a suspect, s/he has to always assume the suspect is armed with a gun, which sets a certain dynamic in play before contact even begins. In Britain, the officer always assumes the opposite. I don’t think there is the only reason that we have so many more police shootings as a percentage of our population, but it is clearly a significant factor.